I’m nearly ready to submit my Arts Council England (ACE) grant application.
I keep saying that, but this time it’s true. I think. Every time I say it, I learn a bit more and start again, but I’m definitely further along the path than I’ve ever been before.
This is the key thing I’ve learned so far (thanks to Dan): ACE doesn’t care (as much) about the making of your work, or even – and this was the real surprise to me – the form and quality of your work. What they want to know is how many people will see the work and be enriched by it, and who those people will be.
I suppose this makes sense if you go back to their first principles. They can’t really take a view on the quality of the art being produced, because that’s always going to be subjective. But they can write policies describing what they want the Arts in England to do: that they want it to inspire a new generation of people to make their own art; they want it to reach communities who might not otherwise have access to it; and they want it to contribute to a vibrant, cultural country.
As Dan pointed out, until you get your head round this, it’s quite hard for a comic artist to approach the application form. You’re coming at it as someone who wants money to fund the time it takes to sit at your desk for weeks or months on end, and as far as you’re concerned, the end product is the comic.
But the ACE funding doesn’t just support comics: it gives grants to musicians, theatres, acrobats, and all sorts of creators, and those people will be using the same form. At first, the questions being asked make far more sense to performers, who will be used to budgeting their project in terms of a little bit of rehearsal followed by a tour, ticket sales, bums on seats.
And so, as a comic artist, as you put the full stop into your final speech bubble of the last page and send your work merrily off to the printers, you can’t call it ‘job done’. No, you have to think: how will this work reach the maximum number of people, and how will I make sure those are the right people to receive it so that it inspires them and enriches England culturally?
No pressure, then.
In my case I’m approaching this from two angles. First, yes, I will produce a self-printed book, and I’ll be sending this to grassroots and radical libraries across England. This is good, because such libraries tend to be in areas where austerity cuts have closed down public libraries and communities have stepped up – in other words they are in some of the most deprived areas of the country, but where there’s still an interest in culture. It also ensures a built-in longevity for the books: by their very nature, libraries maximise the number of people who can access each volume.
The other side is again sparked from something Dan said: the book is not the only possible end product of a comic. The artwork can be exhibited large scale; or it can be talked about and the topics it deals with can be debated to spark new ideas. With this in mind, my second proposition is a small series of talks (and hopefully in a couple of them, exhibits) in a variety of towns across the country. Approaching the libraries in the first part of the plan has, delightfully, opened up new potential collaborations in this second part.
As a bonus, every venue that offers its space and time for free can be counted as ‘support in kind’ and can be part of the 10% match funding that you need to prove you have access to.
In other words, by making you jump through all these hoops, the ACE application process actually forces you to not just make the work, but become an expert in how to disseminate it to the places where it will do the most good. That’s good, right? I think so, much as I hate the new trend of artists having to be their own PR and marketing agencies.
Another thing ACE is keen on is that the funding supports as many people in the arts industry as possible. So, you can ringfence part of it for paying a mentor, or, as I am doing, inviting other artists to join your events.
The slightly disconcerting thing about all this, though, is that effectively you are encouraged to have a detailed daydream about your plan. You throw yourself forward to a date when the work is all finished and you imagine yourself on the road, talking about it.
It’s a beautiful daydream, and one that you then have to fully cost up to the last budget line.
And once you believe in it enough, you have to then approach other people to buy into your daydream: you have to email venues and say ‘IN PRINCIPLE would you be interested in hosting an event about a comic I HAVEN’T DRAWN YET but which I hope, if all goes to plan, may be finished by Spring 2024?” and you email artists to ask if they’d like to take part in these as-yet-imaginary events.
The pleasing thing about all this is that, having taken the plunge, I’ve found venues to be very welcoming. I guess they’re all a lot more familiar with this process than I am. And the artists? Of course, the artists are all lovely too.
So, I’m waiting to hear back from two more key venues (but it won’t be the end of the world if they opt out) and I will then be polishing my day dream and pressing the submit button on the Grantium platform.
The Grantium platform, by the way, is an absolute abhorrence (and massive thanks to the Uncultured for providing a Google Docs version of the blank form), but that is a topic for another time.